WHAT  TO  LOOK  FOR  WHEN  BUYING  A  WINDOWS  COMPUTER

On this page you will find free advice on what to look for when buying a new or second-hand computer with Windows 7 or Vista installed on it. I will be explaining the basic, minimum, hardware and software requirements you should be looking for before parting with your hard earned cash.

NEW  COMPUTER  Vs  OLD  COMPUTER

Always try and buy a new computer where possible. The price difference between a new computer and second-hand computer these days is so small it is not really worth buying a second-hand computer these days unless you know of a "One Careful Owner".


PRICE  As said above; The price difference between New and Used (Second-Hand) is so small, buying a new computer gives you piece of mind that it has a one year warranty, is new and is likely to last you at least four or five years.....even up to 10 years if you look after it properly. On top of this it will not have any immediate hardware upgrade costs that are normally associated with buying an old, second-hand, computer (see below).

MEMORY  To add an extra piece of memory to a new computer these days is very affordable and widely available whereas extra memory for an older computer, a computer that is 7 years old for example, may mean its memory type is no longer manufactured and/or is obsolete. Also, finding an old piece of memory can be difficult and very expensive. Memory helps with computer speed. The more memory you have the better.

Computer Memory

Fig 1.0 - A DDR Laptop Memory Stick - 256MB (Megabytes). Speed 333Mhz.

The storage capacity of memory fitted inside an older computer will more than likely be low, such as 1 GigaByte (1 GB). Windows Vista for example needs a minimum of 2 GB to work, but really needs 4 GB to work properly with 3 GB for comfortable use (not sluggish). And with todays demands on memory (i.e. bigger programs and larger windows/security updates) and hardware in general Windows Vista and even Windows 7 really should have 4 GB as standard. See the Computer Memory section of this website for more information.

HARD DRIVE  The above applies to other hardware too, such as the Hard Drive. A 7 year old computer for example will more than likely be fitted with a hard drive that has a storage capacity of 320 GigaBytes or less (i.e. 160 or even 80 GigaBytes) that is ready to fail (hardware failure) at ay time. To put this into perspective: These days the SSD (Solid State Drive), which is a Memory based hard drive, is fast becoming the preferred type of hard drive simply because it does not have any moving parts like the traditional 'moving parts' 5400 rpm hard drive. And because it uses memory it makes it faster when moving files around for example. So avoid buying a computer that has a 320 GB or less hard drive inside it. With low memory and low hard drive capacity an old, second-hand, computer may not be worth buying purely because of its upgrade costs.

Computer Hard Drive

Fig 1.1 - A Hard Drive stores Windows 10, Third-Party Software and your Personal Files on it

The storage capacity of a hard drive fitted inside a new computer will more than likely be between 500 GB and 1,000 GB (1 TeraByte) because today's computers are aimed at music and video storage/downloads. And even saying this, 500 GB is only for standard users (e-mail, facebook, holiday photos, etc) as opposed to 1,000 GB (1 TB) for heavy users (iTunes music, movie downloads and holiday photo albums). If you are not into storing music, video and photo files on a computer then 500 GB will be plenty of storage space for those occasional photos and so on you do store. With the just said: You can always buy a portable, USB, Hard Drive if you need more storage space. See the Computer Hard Drive section of this website for more information.

OPERATING SYSTEM  The operating system is the Windows software installed on the hard drive. It controls the computer's hardware (i.e. Modem, Graphics, WebCam, Mouse, Printer and Memory) and software applications (i.e. Microsoft Office, Movie Editor, Photo Gallery, Music Player, E-Mail Program and Internet Web Browser) and should be called Windows 7 or Windows 10.

Microsoft Windows Logo

Fig 1.2 - The latest Microsoft operating system is called Windows 10 - This is its logo.

Older Operating Systems such as Windows 98, Windows ME, Windows 2000, Windows XP and Windows Vista will be too old and unsecure for today's computer uses, so avoid a second-hand computer if it does not come with the Windows 7 or Windows 10 operating system installed on its hard drive. The newer operating systems normally have a Home Edition, Business Edition, Professional Edition or Ultimate Edition such as Windows 7 Home Edition and Windows 10 Home. Older operating systems are not normally supported security-wise and software-wise these days.

Newer Operating Systems such as Windows 7 and Windows 10 can cope a lot better with security issues, memory management, power management and file storage for todays computer uses. If you need to upgrade an older operating system (such as Windows XP) to a newer operating system (such as Windows 7 or Windows 10), do not install the Upgrade Version of the newer operating system. Install its Full Version instead.

This is because the Upgrade Version dvd (of Windows 7 or Windows 10) will only replace certain, older, operating system files (of Window XP) with newer operating system files (from the Windows 7 or Windows 10 upgrade version dvd) and therefore leave the older operating system (Windows XP) as the computer's foundation operating system. This means the newly installed (upgraded) operating system files will not be 100% brand new and cleanly installed from scratch - If the older operating system (Windows XP) was sluggish due to corrupt files, the newer operating system (Windows 7 or Windows 10) might inherit some of those corrupted file problems because they were not overwritten by the newer operating system (Windows 7 or Windows 10) files.

If you are buying a new computer ask the shop if it is installed with an Upgrade Version or the Full Version. For example: Was it originally installed with Windows XP or Windows 7 but has now been upgraded to Windows 10? Sometimes a shop will sell you a new computer with an older operating system installed on it as its foundation operating system (such as Windows XP) and then sell it as a Windows 7 or Windows 10 computer, without telling you about the upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7 or Windows 10.

And if the shop offers you a computer with the current operating system installed on it (i.e. Windows 10) and then tells you it also comes with a free upgrade to the next, newer, operating system (such as Windows 11) when that newer operating system becomes available, consider what I have just said about upgrade versions.


COMPUTER - LAPTOP - NETBOOK  A standard Tower/Desktop Computer is the traditional looking (brick/bulky/heavy) computer with a separate mouse, keyboard and screen/monitor whereas a Laptop and Netbook are a lot smaller and come as one piece (the mouse, keyboard and screen are built-in to the base unit).

The Traditional Computer has one big advantage over the laptop and netbook and that is that its hardware components can be upgraded with better hardware. For example: If you do not like its sound system (hardware) you can easily upgrade/fit it with a newer/better sound card (sound hardware chip); something you cannot really do with a laptop or netbook simply because their hardware components tend to be fitted to their motherboard (internal chip board) as opposed to using a socket whereby the hardware can be unplugged/plugged-in and replaced.

The Laptop and Netbook have one big advantage over the traditional computer and that is that they are both portable/mobile due to their smaller sizes (another advantage). They also come with a battery so that if the main electricity power fails the battery will allow you to continue your work, as long as the battery has enough power remaining of course.

THE CPU  is the Central Processing Unit (the computer's brain). The faster the cpu the quicker the computer is at processing information. So if you print a file with Microsoft Word, the operating system (i.e. Windows 10) is the one that communicates with the printer (sends the file to the printer) but it is the actual cpu that interprets the instructions to the hardware (printer). Ignore the technicals though, just make sure your cpu states 2.0 Ghz (Giga Hertz) or higher. 2.0 Ghz is okay (standard) but 3.0 Ghz is great (very fast). See the CPU section of this website for more information.

Central Processing Unit

Fig 1.3 - The CPU is a microchip that processes software/hardware instructions

Dual Core CPUs are now available. Dual Core is where the cpu (the microchip itself) has been split into two processors (two brains) with the theory that one processor can deal with one task (i.e. printing) while the other processor is doing something else (i.e. streaming webcam video footage). Basically, dual core technology is supposed to allow each program to choose which processor it wants to use thereby avoiding the scenario of all programs waiting to use the same processor and therefore slowing down the computer. In reality though many programs still use the same processor.

Quad Core CPUs (four separate processors/brains) are supposed to be twice as fast as Dual Core CPUs, but in reality there is no real difference in speed between them. On top of this, newer computers now use 64bit technology, as opposed to the older 32bit technology, so computers with 64bit technology and quad core processing are supposed to be very very fast. However, as a mobile "computer repair/maintenance man" who visits people with old and new computers; I can honestly say that it's rare to see a very very fast computer these days.

BEFORE  YOU  BUY

Many people buy a computer that costs between £300 and £500 with standard computer specifications and speeds. When they buy a computer they look at things like storage space (the hard drive's size) and not at the cpu speed or memory capacity. They also don't realise that a "fast hardware" computer can easily be slowed down by bulky/heavy software (known as bloatware) - Software that uses too many system resources (such as Memory, CPU time and Hard Drive space). So what should you do and look for before buying a new, or second-hand, computer?

IGNORE THE SALES MAN  Although the sales person is not on your side, they are not the enemy either! They just have a job to do, which may include flogging you a crap computer because they need to clear it from the shelf and/or earn commission. I know, I have worked in computer shops and know what goes on!

Don't ask for a computer demonstration because test computers do not emulate real life computer usage. Meaning, it will not be installed with all the latest security updates (which will naturally slow down any computer a little), it's hard drive will not be full of files such as holiday videos and photos and it will not have activated/in-use software running. With the latter; if it has a 90-Days Trial of Microsoft Office 2013 and Norton Internet Security 2015 installed they will not be fully activated/updated versions and therefore will be lighter on the computer. These tactics show the computer to be fast in other words.

A good computer demonstration will be achieved by asking the following of the sales person. Ask them if they can run (launch/execute/open) 10 Programs, one after the other, such as Microsoft Word, Norton Internet Security, Paint, Notepad, System Information and so on. What you are looking for here is how each program runs (how quickly its window appears and how responsive it is with other programs running).

As a grand finale, ask them to run a game of cards. With 10 Programs already running it will be interesting to see how the animated shuffling of cards will appear (you are looking for a clean shuffle, with no jerking/slow motion) - This is a good test for the Graphics Card and Memory in general. Also then ask the sales person to quickly switch between program windows. What you are looking for here is how quickly each program can be switched and more importantly how responsive its window display is (also ask them to click on a window's buttons before moving to the next window).

NOTE WELL: Not all sales persons will do this test because they will know what you are asking of them. In fact, they may admit defeat or say something stupid like "if you want a faster machine....", meaning you need to spend more! BTW, if you really want an excellent test; do the above but ask them to restart (cold reboot) the computer before the test is carried out. That way you can also monitor the time it takes that computer to start up (boot up).

SHOP AROUND  Don't just look at the main/famous commercial retailers for prices. PCWorld for example might be your first stop but that doesn't mean you should ignore smaller commercial retailers or private retailers who have less stock whereby you automatically think "They will not stock what I need".

I shop at Staples and Maplin for example and have bought all my laptops from Staples. They tend to stock cheaper brand name, as well as expensive brand name, laptops (such as Fujitsu Siemens) which have better specifications (i.e. more memory for your money). I use Maplin and the Computer Fairs for hardware such as Dongles, WebCams, USB Hard Drives, Flash Drives and DVDs because they are cheaper most of the time. And if I need something quickly (such as CDs) I use Argos. Other places include YoYo Tech (located in the West End shopping area of London) and Cable Universe (the internet).

With regards to second-hand computers and parts; Avoid places like Cash Converters, CEX, Internet Cafes, Classified Ads (i.e. Gumtree) and EBay. There is nothing wrong with these places in general, and you might be lucky enough to find a genuine bargain, but in reality crooks operate in these places selling their dodgy/ripoff/stolen goods. If you are going to use places like these try and buy from wellknown, good reputation, sellers or commercial retailers.

Buying second-hand in general, with any goods, is always a risk. Buy a second-hand car today for example and it may work well for six months only, but then again it might last you six years without problems. And it's the same with second-hand computers. The computer may be stolen and/or damaged, but then again it might of had "one careful owner" who needed to sell it for quick money.

THE  RIGHT  SPECIFICATIONS

So to recap the above. Buy a computer that has a Dual Core or Quad Core processor (CPU) with a speed of at least 2.0 Ghz on each core, a hard drive with at least 500 GB of Data Storage, at least 2 GB of Memory and Windows 7 or Windows 10 operating system installed. Here are some examples of brand name laptops with good specifications - Please note: Information was correct at the time of writing (04/09/2015).

Computer   Model   Memory   CPU   Hard Drive    Operating System   Screen   Price   
Dell Inspiron Inspiron 15 5000 Series 8GB Intel i5 - 2.20 Ghz to 2.70 GHz 1TB Windows 10 Home 15.6" From £549.00
HP Pavilion 15-ab040sa  8GB Intel i3 - Dual Core 2.1 Ghz  1TB Windows 10 Home 15.6" £399.99
Toshiba Satellite  L50-C-12V 8GB Intel i5 - 2.2GHz to 2.7 Ghz 1TB Windows 10 Home 15.6" £499.99
Lenovo (IBM) z70 8GB Intel i5 - 2.2GHz to 2.7 Ghz 1TB Windows 10 Home 17.3" £539.99
Asus X553MA 8GB Intel Pentium - 2.16 GHz 1TB Windows 10 Home 15.6" £249.00

The above are examples of well respected brand named laptops that come with specifications worthy of your hard earned cash. Even though a laptop may lack a certain feature, such as only having a 2.0 GHz Dual Core processor (CPU) instead of a 3.0 GHz Dual Core processor (CPU), don't let that put you off because it may have other features such as a larger hard drive and/or more memory to make up for the lesser cpu speed.

As well as the above specifications, with a laptop you also have to consider Screen Size (at least 12"), Battery Life (at least 3 Hours) and the number of USB Ports/Sockets it has (at least 3). Sockets in general are important too, such as whether or not it has a HDMI (High Definition) Socket so you can playback HD DVDs via a big flat screen tv and a hdmi cable for example. The above is not meant to be "The Gospel", but merely a guideline as to what minimum specifications you should look for regardless of your budget.

DO  YOUR  HOMEWORK  FIRST

For the best deals it pays to do your homework and shop around - Look online for what's on offer and take notes (and printouts). Then visit your local, commercial, shops and have a good look at the computers you looked at online and printed out. Test their keyboards and check their real prices and specifications (ask to see the computer's System Informationand if need be - START Menu >> ALL PROGRAMS >> ACCESSORIES >> SYSTEM TOOLS >> SYSTEM INFORMATION) and get a feel for the computer. Don't be afraid to ask the sales person questions and demo the computer's features. Now go back home and order online, if possible, as ordering online can save you money. Many shops now give big discounts for shopping online, as opposed to shopping offline.

As an example of homework: It is common too see mistakes on commercial websites such as PCWorld and Argos due to the masess of technical information and specifications they have to put on their web pages for each and every product. You might see a laptop specified as having 4 GB of memory for example whereby when you visit their shop you find out the laptop actually only has 2 GB of memory. The same happens with special offers whereby you have to read the small print and see exactly which devices are on offer. By visiting a shop directly you can compare other computers and more importantly see the durability/build of each computer and compares features and sizes.